Having Leika here full time the past few days means two things. I begin and end every day picking up dog poop. And I go outside much more often, earlier and later than I normally would. The other morning was one of the first that felt like winter. It was f-f-f-freezing. I had to get all bundled up for that mess, which I kind of enjoy.
There was something about the light that morning. The air was so clear, and everything was visually brilliant. The clouds were low and gray-blue, spotted with bare patches of sky. Between the land, water and sky there was something warm and close about the light. It felt good to be outside, to be in it. I took Leika for a walk around the pond, a small segment of the marsh wildlife preserve across the street We walked to the end of the elliptical pond to a little, railed pier-like area with two benches. You can view a good section of marsh from there. You could see all the way across and all the way over to the road that leads to the main entrance.
I took my time getting back to the apartment that morning. As the sun got higher in the sky the intimacy of the lighting faded to a typical, clear, windy winter day.
And then I went out for a walk in the evening shortly before dusk. And that feeling was back. I’ve heard cinematographers talk about the lighting of various cities and filming locations, each one having its own luminescing personality.
And I thought how much I wanted to be taking pictures of something or someone in that evening glow. How could I capture someone’s eyes in light like that. Pink and yellow in the sky beneath the clouds. No harsh shadows. No glare. It got darker and colder and I wrapped up the longer than usual dog walk.
Inside, I got bored doing nothing and had been having the urge all day to do something musical. I love the sound of pianos. There’s nothing like the sound of being in a room, preferably a small one, with a piano. Years ago, Dahveed Behroozi took me into a practice room at Stanford (Jazz Workshop flashback) and played some things he had been working out. I sat on the floor in the semi-dark, enraptured.
Farther back than that at UMBC, I would sit in a room and listen to Lafayette Gilchrist practice and work out ideas and tell me about the tunes he was working on and what he was doing — how he was approaching them. I don’t know how many times I asked him, “What’s that one?” And he’d say, “I Cover the Waterfront” because each time he played it, it sounded like something new to me.
When I saw Tay at Blues Alley a few months ago I was sitting kind of behind and to the right of Taylor so I could see the keyboard and watch his hands. My back was against the brick wall adjacent to the eponymous alley so the sound of the piano was all around me. Playing with Taylor back in the Bay Area days was an experience because I’d be standing at the far end of the piano catching the sound right off the soundboard. I could feel it in my chest.
The only thing more amazing than the sound of someone who knows what they’re doing seated at a piano, is the sound of a piano when you’re the one playing it. The feel, the weight, of the keys underneath your fingers and the sound of the resonance of the foot pedals as you press and lift off of them. The way notes ring and and the other strings sympathetically ring with them. The way the harmonics shimmer, pulse and beat. The way that each end of the keyboard makes you feel like you’re in a different place. The way the simplest tune is transformed into music by the instrument’s voice.
I can’t really play the piano but I do love the instrument. Back at UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County), around 1991 and 1992, I was playing guitar with the jazz band. It’s more accurate to say that I was learning how to play jazz in a combo settting. It’s where I first learned how to play bass because the director Ron Diehl needed a bass player. I had prepared walking bass lines for the charts and one day he stopped me and said, “You don’t have to play on every quarter note. You can play on beats one and three. And concentrate on the root and fifth.”
I was so relieved. It was much easier. And it opened things up for me to figure out what the heck I was doing. I started going into the practice rooms with the pianos to work out ideas. I’d take a tape recorder and play whatever came to mind and wrote some tunes that way that have long since been lost and/or forgotten. I started shedding jazz standards like “Satin Doll” a la stride piano. I’d spend hours in there.
Eric, Chip — two of my suitemates that year and fellow Meyerhoff Scholars — and I went one night. Chip had to practice something for a class and I wanted to work on some ideas. The three of us were there literally all night. We didn’t leave until, like, 6:30am the next morning, driving back to the suite in my car while I blasted David Sanborn’s “The Dream”.
During winter and spring break I would go to campus and stay until 2 or 3am practicing. Practicing for what, I don’t know, but still practicing. At one point my mother confronted me about my late nights and wanted to know where I was going and what I was doing. She didn’t believe me when I finally said that I was at school half the night playing the piano. So I took her and my little sister to the school and played the stuff I’d been working on.
So a few nights ago when I sat down in front of the computer with the keyboard MIDI controller and Bonsendorfer plug-in, I just played whatever. Wherever my fingers landed and ideas began to form. The clarity of the sound made me think of the light that day. The simultaneous and dichotomous cold and warmth. How pretty it was and how I wished that it could be like that all the time.
When I finished recording it wasn’t enough. So I did more and put a heartbeat under it. Minimalist percussion. Some of the groovingest songs I’ve ever heard have only had a surdo drum pulsing like a heart. And I guess that’s exactly what it is.
Anyway, it’s it and that’s that.